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What’s the Motivation? Armed groups stop outside a shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, December 2010. To prevent atrocities, policymakers must better understand the incentives that drive perpetrators to target civilians and the gaps in security and governance that allow them to do so.
What’s the Motivation? Armed groups stop outside a shop in Mogadishu, Somalia, December 2010. To prevent atrocities, policymakers must better understand the incentives that drive perpetrators to target civilians and the gaps in security and governance that allow them to do so.
(Photo by Kate Holt/IRIN)
The Future of Responsibility
As R2P moves into its second decade, questions of prevention and use of force grow more complex

All questions are leading questions. Yet, once asked, we tend to lose sight of the way a particular question shapes its answer. We find ourselves all the more bemused when that answer begs fresh questions of its own—many more challenging than the one with which we started.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), a collection of eminent political experts that outlined the concept known as the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), convened in 2001 with a very specific question in mind: “When, if ever, is it appropriate for states to take coercive action—and in particular, military action, against another state for the purpose of protecting people at risk in that other state?”

In answering their self-set query, ICISS made a striking shift—one that opened the door to an entirely new set of questions, as well as a whole new set of tools for the global approach to mass atrocity crimes.

Moving Upstream
The crux of the humanitarian intervention debate had always been the tension between the moral impulse to stop mass violence and the principles of “noninterference” and “sovereign equality” that bind the contemporary world order. In a fundamental reframing of this debate, ICISS inverted the premise of the intervention argument, advocating not for a “right to intervene,” but rather a “responsibility to protect.”

Motivated both by analytical rigor and political expediency, ICISS sandwiched its discussion of international response to atrocities between what it described as a “responsibility to prevent” and a “responsibility to rebuild.” Political adoption of R2P by world leaders at the 2005 World Summit reinforced R2P’s focus on peaceful, preventive means and made the novel commitment to “assist states under stress” and help them “build capacity to protect their populations.”

While some world leaders may have hoped in 2005 that phrases like “state responsibility” and “international assistance” would deflect the more invasive tendencies of the concept and shore up traditional notions of sovereignty, highlighting prevention has proven perversely revolutionary.

Setting the sights of global policy to prevent rather than simply respond to mass atrocity threats raises deeper questions about the internal dynamics that drive atrocity violence. It points openly to the internal governance approaches of individual states and asks how domestic choices might actively incite or enable the potential for genocide and other mass atrocities.

This preventive focus has opened space to consider a set of questions arguably more transformative for global policy than ICISS’s initial query. First, “How must states structure their institutions and approach their own internal governance to ensure the greatest level of protection from the threat of civilian-targeted violence?” and “When and how should the international community exercise its responsibility to engage, assist, or (when necessary) confront sovereign states over the way they choose to guarantee the physical security of their own populations?”

The Challenge Ahead
As R2P enters its second decade, it boasts a depth of political consensus surprising for its youth and transformative potential. Yet, as R2P is translated from abstract principle into concrete policies, the international community faces questions even more complex than the one with which it started.

Novel approaches are naturally prone to unanticipated, complex, and potentially contentious challenges. While only one of the many R2P-inspired policy responses since 2005, the United Nations Security Council’s decision to mandate force to protect civilians in Libya was the greatest stretch, thus far, for a body unaccustomed to flexing muscle without the pretext (however indirect) of a given regime’s consent.

The debate that surrounds NATO’s implementation of this mandate echoes longstanding unease over a broad set of issues related to the Security Council and the use of force—most notably the council’s ability to ensure that force mandated for one purpose will not be hijacked for another.

As R2P moves toward 2022, it must not only clarify consensus over the means of applying its most pointed tools, but also address the many challenges faced in preventing atrocities before force becomes the only option.

The logic of prevention, for example, points us further upstream where evidence tends to be fuzzy and qualitative. We grapple to identify the essence of atrocity violence—its root incentives and enablers—and seek to better understand when and why elites consider systematic civilian-targeting the best means to meet their objectives.

When it comes to pinpointing concrete policies for prevention, satisfying answers are few. Policy discussions often devolve into listings of measures that span the full spectrum of the conflict prevention, state-building, and development agendas. Vague nods are always given to the importance of “good governance,” “security sector reform,” and the “rule of law.”

R2P’s Next Decade
Current policy prescriptions—whether for prevention or response—rely heavily on muddled intuition. Yet the questions raised in R2P’s first decade have brought us closer to the core of the true challenge: how to create a world in which mass violence is no longer seen as a viable means to achieve political ends.

Moving forward, policy actors and experts must delve deeper and more deliberately into the dynamics of atrocity violence. They must develop policies for prevention and response that target these unique dynamics across the various phases of (potential) crisis and prioritize atrocity-focused objectives within broader efforts to prevent and resolve conflict, promote security, and encourage economic development.

If our answers are imprecise, they demand that we ask better questions—and then be willing to follow where those questions lead. Our concerted willingness to do so will define “success” for R2P in 2022 and beyond.

The R2P: The Next Decade event, including full video, audio, transcripts, as well as the post-conference policy memo.

More about the Stanley Foundation's Preventing Genocide work.

"Prevention: Core to the Responsibility to Protect," Rachel Gerber, e-International Relations, October 2011.

Before the Killing Begins: The Politics of Mass Violence video.

— Rachel Gerber, Program Officer, The Stanley Foundation
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